WASHINGTON – Is this real? Did that really just happen? In Greensboro?
As the Notre Dame basketball team celebrated its incredible run through the 2015 ACC tournament, there were moments of incredulous jubilation, making the just-completed accomplishment seem like a dream sequence from a movie.
Wins over Duke – the eventual national champions – and North Carolina? On Tobacco Road?
As Notre Dame’s journey in the 2016 ACC tournament begins Thursday afternoon at the familiar Verizon Center (formerly known as the MCI Center) against the winner of Duke-N.C. State, last year’s dreams are reality, a reminder of what can happen with a whole new challenge ahead.
“I don’t think we’ll refer to that because we’re pursuing another one,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey of the title “defending ACC champs.”
“We’re moving forward on another one. It is nice to know that we’ve won the tournament we’re going to.”
It’s a balancing act between leaning on the idea that Notre Dame can and has won this thing before while recognizing that last year’s accomplishments can only carry you so far.
On one hand, Brey encouraged his players to wear their ACC championship rings to Washington, D.C.
“A couple of them said, ‘It’s at my house,’ and I said, ‘Well get it Fed-exed up here!’” Brey laughed.
On the other hand, it’s about living in the moment.
“We have a lot of confidence, but we also know the feeling and how hard it’s going to be,” said junior point guard Demetrius Jackson, who averaged 13 points, three rebounds and four assists in Notre Dame’s three-game run through Miami, Duke and North Carolina in Greensboro.
“We also have to realize it’s a totally different team and a new year. We understand what it takes, so now let’s go out and do it. Go out, have fun and play together.”
Also leading last year’s charge was Zach Auguste, who topped off a 35-point, 28-rebound three-game stretch with 16 of those points and 13 of those rebounds coming in the championship game against the Tar Heels.
“As a leader, it’s my job to remind them that there are no more second chances now,” Auguste said. “If you lose, you’re done. We’ve been in this position before. It’s just about helping the young guys figure it out.”
While the Irish will try to take advantage of their new-found tempo against N.C. State that shook them out of a four-game scoring slump, they also know a measured approach is in order, especially if Thursday’s opponent proves to be the Blue Devils, who have more than one score to settle with Notre Dame.
“We know every game is going to be a battle,” said sophomore bruiser Bonzie Colson. “Other teams will go on runs. We’ve got to be smart with the ball and we’ve got to be able to defend.
“You have to take every possession seriously and we’ve got to bring our edge. If we don’t bring our edge, it’s going to be hard for us to win games.”
Come Thursday afternoon, the Irish will be locked in mentally and emotionally. Monday, before Notre Dame conducted its final practice at Purcell Pavilion prior to departing for the nation’s capital, the media coaxed some reminiscing out of the players who experienced last year’s ACC tournament run.
“Knocking off Duke and North Carolina…and cutting down the nets,” smiled V.J. Beachem as he reflected on last year’s experience. “Now it’s about trying to do the same thing. New location, same goal.”
It’s a goal that’s no longer just a dream; it’s real, it’s tangible.
“It’s the ascension of the program,” said an upbeat Brey, who once led Notre Dame to six wins in a row at Thursday’s venue and is 7-4 overall.
“It’s the belief among the returning guys of, ‘Well, that’s what we do because we did it last year.’”